Environmental Justice Crusader Eyed for White House Council

Environmental Justice Crusader Eyed for White House Council

President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team is considering recommending environmental justice champion Mustafa Santiago Ali to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, as the incoming administration seeks to prioritize the damage pollution takes on poor and minority communities.

The deliberations, part of an effort to refocus the obscure White House agency into a hub for promoting environmental justice, was described by two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing personnel recommendations.

Neither Ali nor representatives of the Biden-Harris transition immediately responded to requests for comment.

The CEQ serves as a kind of mission control coordinating environmental policy decisions and reviews across the federal government. It also oversees implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Under President Donald Trump, the agency has sought to expedite environmental permitting. But Biden has outlined plans for the agency to address environmental injustice amid a national reckoning on matters of race.

Another environmental justice advocate, Cecilia Martinez, is also being considered to lead the agency, Bloomberg Law reported. Martinez now heads Biden’s agency review team focused on CEQ.

EPA Veteran

Ali spent 24 years at the Environmental Protection Agency and helped found an office there focused on environmental justice. He resigned as an assistant associate administrator in 2017 as the Trump administration moved to zero out the office’s funding.

At the EPA, Ali also led an interagency working group on environmental justice, which brought together 17 federal agencies and White House offices. One of the group’s work products was a set of recommendations for integrating environmental justice considerations into the government’s NEPA reviews of projects and policies -- a blueprint that could be adopted by the Biden administration.

Biden already has pledged to re-establish a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council. He’s emphasized that the problems of climate change and pollution are tied to the struggle for racial equality, asserting in June that low-income communities of color can be victimized by being “in spots where the water is not clean, the air you can’t breathe.”

Ali has argued that environmental justice considerations should be embedded in federal policy making, and emphasized the need to rebuild and revitalize vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of pollution. Progressive activists have lobbied Biden to nominate Ali as EPA administrator.

Unequal Impact

“We have some opportunities for some real wins,” Ali said in a conference call on Nov. 24 marking the 50th anniversary of the EPA. “We also have opportunities to really mitigate and minimize the impacts that happen inside the communities that are often unseen and unheard.”

Ali said the Trump administration’s work to ease environmental regulations has had unequal results. “For all these rules that have been rolled back or weakened, there have been these additional impacts that have happened to our most vulnerable communities,” he said.

Any new regulations that move forward should be buttressed by a “true and full environmental justice analysis” to ensure “we’re providing the protection that’s needed,” he said.

Ali, who is Black, is now a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation. He also served as a senior vice president for the Hip Hop Caucus, a not-for-profit group that promotes political activism among young voters. And he’s the founder of Revitalization Strategies, a business focused on helping vulnerable communities thrive, according to his biography on the wildlife group’s website.

Poor people and people of color often face higher exposure to pollutants, according to the American Lung Association. One reason for the discrepancy is that disadvantaged communities tend to be located near pollution sources, from interstate highways to refineries.

“Since the beginning, environmentalism has struggled with racism and exclusion,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a vice president at the progressive think tank Data for Progress.

“For decades, communities of color and indigenous peoples have fought to reorient environmental concerns around inclusion and justice,” said NoiseCat. “Having an environmental justice leader at the helm of CEQ would mark an incredible victory for our movement.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.